Saturday, 4 January 2014

Liberating Lebanon

"We have decided to liberate Lebanon from occupation by illegal weaponry."

The words of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, at the funeral of his friend and ally, Mohammed Chatah, blown to pieces by a car bomb on Friday, December 27, 2013. 

What did he mean?  First and foremost, he was reaffirming the basic philosophy underlying Lebanon’s so-called “March 14 Alliance” – a coalition of Lebanese politicians united by their opposition to the Syrian régime and to the Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah.  March 14 was the launch date in 2005 of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement  triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri earlier that year.  The demonstrations were directed against Syria’s President Bashar Assad, suspected from the first of being behind the murder, and his Iranian-supported allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, who were widely believed to have carried out the deed.  The March 14 Alliance is led by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s younger son.

The echoes of Rafik Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics.  Hariri had been demanding that Hezbollah disband its militia and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's conventional armed forces.  The same demand lies behind Siniora’s new pledge to “liberate Lebanon from occupation by illegal weaponry" – the illegal weaponry being the massive input of arms and money provided to Hezbollah by Iran.

More practically, perhaps, Sioniora was referring to the fact that Saudi Arabia had just pledged $3 billion to Lebanon to help strengthen the country's armed forces. The Lebanese army has struggled to contain a rising tide of violence linked to the civil war in neighbouring Syria.  With Hezbollah fighting to support Assad, while a large segment of Lebanese opinion is in favour of toppling him, the conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions and threatened the country's stability.  Many Lebanese – even those of Shii’te persuasion – resent the fact that Hezbollah is engaged in conflict, at the behest of Iran, against Muslims in a neighbouring country – activities far from the purpose for which the organization was founded.  They resent the mounting death toll of Lebanese fighters – a recent estimate was 262 dead – and Hezbollah has reportedly been paying the families of its fighters killed in Syria to keep quiet about their relatives' deaths. These resentments, allied to the assassination of  Mohammed Chatah, may explain the car bomb in the Hezbollah area of south Beirut on 2 January which killed four and injured over 60 people.

The Lebanese President, Michel Sleiman, who made the surprise announcement of the Saudi pledge in a televised address, said that “the weapons will be bought from France quickly."  At the moment the balance of military power within the country heavily favours the military wing of Hezbollah, formally declared “a terrorist organization” by the European Union in July 2013. This boost to Lebanon‘s armed forces should go some way to redressing the balance.

In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East.  It is the one and only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Sh’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Despite brief interludes of prosperity (“Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East”), Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.

Liberated in 1941 by Free French and British troops from the control of Hitler’s puppet Vichy France, Lebanon was declared an independent sovereign nation. France handed over power to the first Lebanese government as from 1 January 1944.

Modern Lebanon was established on the basis of an agreed "National Pact".  Political power is allocated on a religious or "confessional" system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. Posts in the civil service and in public office are distributed in the same way.  The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi'a Muslim.

Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society.  In practical terms, it has proved a constant irritant.  Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional method of allocating power have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades, and it partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah, an extremist Shia Islamist group, emerged with a separate identity in the early 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement aimed at resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces.  Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut killing 63 people, and the  blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion

It can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but Hezbollah achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border.  In the election that followed Hezbollah took all 23 South Lebanon seats, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has consistently participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government, and has slowly achieved substantial, if not dominant, power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the March 14 Alliance.

The movement to free Lebanon from Hezbollah’s grip is closely bound up with the interminable judicial investigation into Rafik Hariri’s assassination – a process which began in April 2005 with the establishment of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC).  According to the Commission the last of its ten reports was delivered in April 2008 – the Lebanese and Syrian security and intelligence agencies committed the assassination using members of Hezbollah.

The UNIIIC was succeeded by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), whose pre-trial proceedings continue to this day.  Antonio Cassese, its president, has suggested that the bulk of the court’s work would not be completed before 2015. 

Throughout the eight years since Rafik Hariri’s assassination, Hezbollah and the Syrian régime have consistently sought to quash the UN investigation, or at least to disrupt and discredit it.  As a result UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called on political leaders in Lebanon not to interfere in the STL's affairs:

"I want to be perfectly clear. This tribunal [has] a clear mandate from the Security Council to uncover the truth and end impunity. I urge all Lebanese and regional parties not to interfere in the tribunal's work. It will go on.”

Will the outcome of the investigation – and the trials, if any, which follow – be sufficient to loosen Hezbollah’s stranglehold on Lebanon’s body politic and permit the re-establishment of the harmonious balance of power envisaged in its unique constitution?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 January 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Liberating-Lebanon-337124?prmusr=Ez%2bxLIVV8KJVvQrdHMN1GmZ9ycUuQp9DpFQ45%2bc%2bq3xCVRvpHHIfJW81Z8%2bf8acD

Published in the Eurasia Review, 5 January 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/05012014-liberating-lebanon-oped/


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